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Harrison twins’ improvement has been pivotal for No. 8 Kentucky

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When the calendar flipped to the month of March, the Kentucky Wildcats looked nothing like a team that just over a month later would be making final preparations for a game in the Final Four. The Wildcats would lose 72-67 at South Carolina on March 1, a game that fell in the middle of a regular season-ending stretch of three losses in four game. One of the issues late was the play of freshman guards Aaron and Andrew Harrison, with both struggling with their shot and understanding of what head coach John Calipari expected of them within the system.

During those four games Aaron shot 11-for-43 (25.6%) from the field and Andrew wasn’t much better at 11-for-38 (28.9%). And at that point in the season there were also signs that the twins were allowing the poor shooting to impact other areas of their game, which given their positions as the leaders in the backcourt can affect the team as a whole.

Was that rough stretch for Kentucky entirely their doing? No. But it should come as no coincidence that with the Harrison twins playing better basketball, Kentucky has stepped forward as a team.

RELATED: No. 2 Wisconsin vs. No. 8 Kentucky preview 

In seven postseason games Aaron, who hit big shots in wins over No. 4 Louisville and No. 2 Michigan last week, has shot 46.3% from the field and 50% (22-for-44) from beyond the arc. He’s taken better shots for much of this seven-game run, with Kentucky’s lone defeat coming in the SEC title game, and having that kind of perimeter shooting helps with the spacing of Kentucky’s offense. Driving lanes become somewhat easier to navigate, and the big men have more room to operate inside when defenses are forced to remain honest.

As for Andrew, his improvement hasn’t been so much about shooting as it has been distributing the basketball. In Kentucky’s final four regular season games he averaged 3.8 assists per game. In postseason play that figure is up to 5.7 assists per contest, which is nearly two assists per game more than his average on the season (3.9). Have there been hiccups along the way? Yes, as noted by the 12 turnovers committed in wins over Kansas State and Wichita State. But he bounced back in Indianapolis, committing a total of six turnovers in Kentucky’s wins over Louisville (two) and Michigan (four).

So what’s the difference been? In Monday’s coaches teleconference Calipari discussed their improved body language, but he also blamed himself for the twins not fully understanding what their respective roles were.

“We had to define the roles better, and I did a poor job of that until late in the year, by the end of the year,” Calipari said. “I can’t believe it. I was angry when I realized what I had done. I coached all different kinds of point guards. We had to get Derrick Rose to shoot more. We had to get Tyreke [Evans] and Brandon Knight to shoot less.

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“We had fast point guards, point guards that weren’t as fast. John Wall, Eric Bledsoe that played the combo. It just bothered me as a coach. That’s my job. Their job is to play. My job is to help define their roles, to bring them together, to get them to understand. I’m happy it was done; I just wish I had done it earlier.”

That may not seem like much to some, with the general response likely being “they’re McDonald’s All-Americans and projected lottery picks, so they should be able to figure it out.” But that isn’t how the game works, especially at the level Kentucky and any other team that aspires to win a national title competes at on a daily basis. Kentucky has multiple weapons capable of putting points on the board, with James Young on the wing and Julius Randle being an incredibly difficult matchup inside due in part to his ability to attack off the dribble.

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But if this team was to turn things around and make good on the preseason prognostications that they’d win Kentucky’s ninth national title, better play was needed from the backcourt. That’s been the case over the last month, with the Harrisons’ improved understanding of their individual roles and how they fit into what the team was looking to accomplish being a key factor. And if that continues to be the case, two more wins are well within Kentucky’s reach.

White decides to return to Nebraska

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Nebraska’s second-leading scorer from last season will return for his senior season as Andrew White III announced Wednesday he will withdraw his name from the NBA Draft.

“I felt good about the pre-draft process, White said in a statement released by Nebraska. “It was encouraging, and I gained as much ground as anyone throughout the process. I wanted one more year to fine tune my game and put myself in better position for the NBA next summer.  

“I want to thank the teams who invited me their in-house workouts, and Nebraska for supporting me during this process.  It has been very helpful in gathering information in preparation for my future Thank you to everyone who has been following my progress throughout the spring and being understanding and supportive, as I evaluated whether to turn pro or return for my senior year.”

White, a Kansas transfer, tallied 16.6 points per game last season while shooting 48.1 percent from the floor and 41.2 percent from 3-point range. He also pulled down 5.9 rebounds per game.

“We are excited to have Andrew remain with our program,” coach Tim Miles said. “This has been a valuable time for him, as he has tested his skills against some of the best competition and received very important insight from key NBA personnel.  

“We look forward to continuing to help Andrew’s development to improve his NBA profile even more than he already has done through this process.  I believe next year could be our most complete team with a great opportunity for success in the Big Ten and NCAA tournament, I’m happy Andrew will be with us to go out and prove it.”

The news is certainly welcome for the Cornhuskers and Miles, who will be under pressure to show improvement after back-to-back disappointing seasons following an NCAA tournament appearance in 2014. Shavon Shields, last year’s leading scorer, has exhausted his eligibility and the Huskers will need White to help fill the void.

Trimble coming back to Terps

Maryland guard Melo Trimble (AP Photo/Matt Hazlett)
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Melo Trimble is returning to Maryland.

The Terrapin guard will be back to for his junior season in College Park, according to multiple reports.

Trimble went from freshman first-rounder to question mark after a rough end to his sophomore season for Maryland in which his points per game, shooting percentage (both overall and from 3-point range) and rebounding dipped from his first season. Only his assists per game showed any sort of improvement. He waited until the last possible day to announce his intentions to return to school, but really his options were limited after seeing his production drop.

His decision to come back to school gives him a shot to restore his draft stock while Maryland gets its floor general back to help ease the transition from last year’s Sweet 16 squad that lost Diamond Stone, Rasheed Sulaimon and Jake Layman. The Terps might not be a sure-fire top-25 team with Trimble back, but their NCAA tournament chances are now significantly higher.

Nevada lands Martin twins

Caleb Martin, Jordan Roper
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Eric Musselman keeps adding reinforcements to his roster. For the 2017-18 season.

Musselman and Nevada received commitments from N.C. State transfers and twin brothers Caleb and Cody Martin, according to multiple reports.

That brings Nevada’s sit-out transfer count for this upcoming season to four with Hallice Cooke (Iowa State) and Kendall Stephens (Purdue) already in the fold. Under NCAA transfer rules, the quartet will have to sit out the upcoming season before being eligible in 2017-18.

Caleb averaged 11.5 points, 4.7 rebounds and 1.4 assists while shooting 36 percent from deep while Cody put up 6.0 points, 4.4 rebounds and 2.3 assists, shooting 43 percent from beyond the arc.

The timing of having four sit-out transfers works well for the Wolf Pack given that two of the team’s three leading scorers from last year, D.J. Fenner (a senior) and Cameron Oliver (a sophomore), return while senior transfers Marcus Marshall (Missouri State) becomes eligible. Having those four experienced transfers begin playing in 2017-18 while all but two players from this upcoming team slated to return makes Nevada an interesting team, a year from now.

Louisville big man heading to NBA Draft

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After a day of mixed messages, Louisville’s Chinanu Onuaku finally made it official.

He’s staying in the NBA Draft.

“After talking to my family and going through the NBA process,” Onuaku wrote in an Instagram post, “me and my family have decided that it would be best for me to keep my name in the draft.”

The day started out with Cardinals coach Rick Pitino telling multiple media outlets that the 6-foot-10 sophomore would remain in the draft after he declared last month without an agent and attended the draft combine. Onuaku, though, appeared to at least mildly refute that with an Instagram post that said his decision wouldn’t come until later Wednesday evening. Which it did, confirming Pitino’s words.

The confusion may have been frustrating for observers, but Onuaku’s social media presence no doubt has benefited from the bizarre day.

Onuaku averaged 9.9 points, 8.5 rebounds, 2.0 blocks and 1.6 assists in 24.6 minutes per game last season, making his per-40 numbers, a metric NBA teams like to take into consideration, nothing short of fantastic. He also shot a not-so-shabby 62.0 percent from the floor. His size, athleticism and ability to score around the basket (he’s taken one 3-pointer in two seasons) make him a potential first-round selection in next month’s draft.

The 19-year-old Onuaku underwent a procedure on his heart last week due to Wolff-Parkinson-White syndrome. It has been described as a minor procedure that will not affect his ability to play long-term or work out with teams leading up to the draft.

The Cardinals, meanwhile, should be able to absorb Onuaku’s loss seemlessly as they return the bulk of last year’s team that went 23-8 and was ranked 10th in KenPom, but was banned from the postseason as a result of the Katina Powell bombshell. Newcomers Tony Hicks (Penn transfer) and V.J. King (consensus top-30 recruit) will also make for solid additions.

Swanigan staying for sophomore season

Purdue's Vince Edwards (12), Purdue's Caleb Swanigan (50) and Purdue's A.J. Hammons (20) celebrate during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against the Illinois in the quarterfinals at the Big Ten Conference tournament, Friday, March 11, 2016, in Indianapolis. Purdue won 89-58. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)
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Purdue will once again be rolling out a formidable frontcourt in the 2016-17 season.

Boilermaker big man Caleb Swanigan is withdrawing from the NBA Draft to return to West Lafayette for his sophomore season, the school announced Wednesday.

The NBA is right there and always will be,” Swanigan said in the school’s press release, “but you always have to have patience and do what’s best for you.”

Purdue is losing 7-foot senior A.J. Hammons, but will be once again teaming Swanigan with Isaac Haas (7-2) and Vince Edwards (6-8) that will allow them to roll out a supersized lineup that is sure to be a difficult one to face off against.

The 6-foot-9, 250-pound Swanigan, who likely would have landed as a second-round pick, averaged 10.2 points, 8.3 rebounds and 1.2 assists and was a finalist for the Wayman Tisdale Award for the country’s top freshman.

“We are excited that (Swanigan) has withdrawn from the NBA Draft and will return to Purdue,” head coach said Matt Painter in a statement released by the school. “He has the potential to make a huge jump from his freshman season and will be a big part of what we do next year. He received great experience going through this process and will use the feedback he received to make him a more diverse player.”

Purdue is probably a rung down from Michigan State and Wisconsin at the top of the league, but the return of Swanigan pulls them closer to competing at the top of the league next season.